"Thus says the Lord, 'Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. And also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place."
* * *
In a very similar way the American Church has insulated itself from doing the Word of God. Our paper walls are the pages of our Bibles. It is clear we are not hearing the cries of the afflicted, the poor, and the oppressed. Those paper pages of academic knowledge do not pass into the active world outside.
In the first chapter of this book, I pointed out that Jesus behaved in which we be appalled. We enjoy reading of His exploits but would reject such behavior today. The same could be said of the words and deeds of John the Baptist, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and many others. Malachi's scatological prophecy would have been viewed ipso facto as evidence that he was "not from God." I refer to Malachi 2:3. In the modern versions, the translators have escaped the coarseness of this prophecy by using the words "refuse" or "dung." But these delicacies were not available to Malachi since the prophecy was intended to shock. Try imagining a prophet of God saying it in modern vernacular and you will get a sense of Malachi's proclamation.
As mentioned above, we hear the commands of Scripture to help the needy, but we are deaf to their actual cries through the paper walls of our Bible pages. Much of the blame for our abstraction of Biblical injunctions lies in our own carnal nature's wish to escape responsibility. But the greatest responsibility lies with the Church leadership who have trained their disciples into this very process by refusing to lead them in the good works commanded by the Word.
Dead Letters and Living Epistles
. . . for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."
-- Paul the apostle
2 Corinthians 3:2 & 6
* * *
Jesus said that he who hears the Word and does it is like a man building his house on the rock. Others will be swept away. There is no neutral ground here -- nothing between rock and sand on which to build.
Unless the Word is done, there is no real faith. No one can grow in grace without "mortifying the deeds of the flesh" or "seeking forgiveness" from those he has wronged; neither can he grow without "doing justice" or "delivering the oppressed" or "pleading the cause of the widow." But most of these do not even occur to the average American Christian, nor do they become topics that are seriously addressed in the Church. Perhaps an occasional sermon is preached, but no real action is expected -- or forthcoming.
The reading of the Word and the living meaning of the words have been comfortably -- and separately -- compartmentalized. The two are never seen together.
Every week, pastors read past Scriptures commending caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked, yet most of these churches engage in no such outreaches. Nor do we encourage our congregations to seriously consider such acts of compassion on their own. To the contrary, by word we discourage active compassion and by our example we encourage conspicuous consumption. Kirkegaard once told of the time that he saw a satin vestment clothed priest enter the sanctuary, ascend the hand-carved pulpit, open the gold-hinged Bible, and read, "Blessed are ye who are poor . . ." But, he said, nobody laughed.
I can imagine, however, that Somebody cried.
That Divine purpose can be summarized in two simple statements: Love God, and Love your neighbor as yourself. The daily outworking of this involves more than the privatized faith most American Christians practice. Truly, it requires an outgoing effort. Scripture commands -- not suggests -- that we love in deed and truth, not just tongue. (1 John 3:18)
The Pharisees of Jesus' time also contented themselves with religious, pietistic expression. Our rare forays into the arenas of justice, mercy, and care for the poor were gaudy -- and primarily for display. Dozens of Scriptures command believers to active intervention into the problems that the poor and powerless face. "Open your mouth for the dumb, and for the rights of the unfortunate," exhorts Proverbs 31:8-9, "Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy." Jeremiah 22:3, quoted above, tells us to, "Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor" among other things. 1
These cannot be separated from the heart of God -- not even by spurious divisions between Old and New Testaments. Nor is it sufficient to relegate such activity under a demeaning term of "social gospel." Wesley said, "There is no holiness without social holiness" and he proved that with his actions. He opened schools for the children of the poor and even started credit unions for the colliers of Wales. Booth opened homes for street people, Corrie Ten Boom illegally opened her home to Jews. Other believers through the ages provided homes for orphans and reformed prostitutes. Some fought against slavery and intemperance. Reforms in prisons and sanitariums were spearheaded by ongoing Christian revival. Without acts of these kinds, the gospel is meaningless. Remember, Jesus called justice one of the "weightier things" of the law. (Matthew 23: 23)
Such action requires initiative, risk, and a deliberate departure from comfortable, personalized religion of America. In fact, according to James, anything other is not true religion at all. The American personalized faith is just an attempt to have God on the cheap. This applies to churches and church leadership as well -- or, perhaps, especially.
Prostitutes stalk the streets outside our gorgeous edifices; people next door -- or even in our own churches -- are hungry; abortion clinics churn out their grisly product; people are discriminated against for their skin color or nationality; the poor are hammered and taken advantage of by government and businesses; widows live in fear of ruinous scams by con men; children are abandoned by their fathers or molested by relatives; homeschoolers and other dissidents are persecuted by government agencies; homosexuals demand access to children; and the worst part, the Church, the representative of God on earth, offers little or no resistance. The victims are abandoned by the very ones who claim to have the solutions. Instead the churches are busy attending an ice cream social/fundraiser for the building fund.
To me the real "social gospel" -- the one that poses the greatest danger to Christianity's -- is the one that encourages a private faith that limits its activities to socializing with other believers at potlucks.
Where is the American Church speaking out for the voiceless? Where are we defending the rights of the afflicted and needy? Where have we done any of this in the last five decades? The examples of our doing any of these are so few that they are startling by their appearance. Small "parachurch" groups and occasional individuals have taken up these burdens -- burdens that belong to every Christian and every church. This, as Jesus commented, we should have been doing without leaving the other undone. The lack of concerted action from the Church betrays a mind that does not truly acknowledge the evil and sin inherent in these problems.
For the most part, however, the American Church and its hosts have been focused on properly dividing up our mint leaves and counting seeds of cumin.
True Religion or Truth Religion
* * *
Christian leaders have encouraged believers to know the Word of God -- but not to do it or invest it into our souls. Scripture memorization is a highly touted means of Christian instruction. Various methods have been devised to aid the believer in this effort. What has been lacking, however, is action.
American believers are literally bloated with memorization, study helps, and Bibles, yet we seem to be the least likely to actually live out the words of our memorized verses. If a hungry man comes to the door, we are more likely to bring up the memory of "If a man does not work, neither shall he eat" than "For you saw me hungry and you gave me to eat."
The lack here is not in the area of knowing the Word, but of having the Word spring out of one's daily life from the heart. In fact, acting out the Word is often actively discouraged. I recall listening to a Christian radio talk show where the guest was a well known theologian. A young woman called who was attending college in the area (a secular college at that). She told of the deep distress she experienced walking the few blocks to and from her apartment to the school each day as she passed homeless people on the streets. There was not much she could do about the overall problem, she realized, but she took to bringing one home whenever she could for a meal and a shower. The silence of show's host and the theologian spoke volumes. Soon they both began to caution the young woman about the practice. "It could be unsafe," they chided gently and suggested she begin to pray for them or maybe mail financial support to a local soup kitchen. They both agreed that the homeless problem was tragic but that she should find some other, less-personal way to help them.
Such things are indicative of the crisis in the Church. Small wonder that there are no Protestant Mother Teresas. The story of the great missionary, William Carey would never have been worth reading if he had allowed the Church to mold his vision for India.
James tells us that true religion is to "visit orphans and widows in their distress (first) and to keep oneself unstained by the world." Do good and don't sin. A pretty simple formula -- and one that runs as a mighty current throughout Scripture. But the American Church is stuck on a truth religion that teaches "Memorize Scripture and have all your doctrinal ducks in a row." We have a religion of truth, not true religion. The emphasis is on truth as an abstract rather than truth as an act.
Jesus chastened the leaders of His day saying, "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have life." But the true Life stood before them and their desire for life could have been easily met had they simply fallen down in adoration. Instead they chose to measure spirituality and life by the head-knowledge or memorization of Scripture.
A.W. Tozer once wrote of this mechanization of spirituality, "The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of His Word." 2
Is it any wonder the American Church collapses with every wind? Jesus warned that those who heard the truth (and, I suspect, knew it by heart) but did not act upon it were like those who built houses on sand. (Matthew 7:24-27) Scripture memorization may be a good tool for Christian growth -- but only so long as it is accompanied by the internal heart change to live that Word.
Sins of Omission
-- Jeremiah 22: 16
"I spoke to you in your prosperity; but you said, 'I will not listen!"
-- Jeremiah 22: 21a
"If you say, 'See, we did not know this,' does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will he not render to man according to his work?"
-- Proverbs 24: 12
* * *
There is a bloodguilt that comes when the injustices perpetrated by the wicked go unanswered. This is especially angering when it is religious people try to approach God while ignoring such evil. God tells Israel that He will no longer answer their prayers unless they cleanse their hands of blood. (Isaiah 1: 10-15) He says:
"Your hands are covered with blood. "
There is no accusation here of the actual shedding of innocent blood yet the bloodguilt is present in God's eyes. Again we see the pattern of James' definition of true religion -- Stop sinning and do righteousness. To be free from bloodguilt it is not sufficient to merely cease from doing evil deeds, one must also actively resist the evil deeds of others done against the oppressed and afflicted -- or do justice and righteousness.
A sin of omission is just as evil as a sin of commission.
The Blood of Christ
-- Matthew 25:40b
Merciful Lord, we approach You as those whose hands have shed innocent blood and we seek Your forgiveness. We offer no justification for our deed -- we were in rebellion and now we see our wickedness. We surrender to Your judgment asking only to be accepted under the blood of Your Son, Jesus.